NEVER MAN’S LAND Written and directed by Tristan R. Whiston (Red Dress). At Alchemy Theatre (133 Tecumseth). Jan 31-Feb 10. Pwyc-$15. 416-629-8795. Rating: NNNNN
The Disney cartoon and Christmas panto treat the story of Peter Pan as family entertainment. For Tristan R. Whiston, the tale has other, more serious resonances.
In his latest piece, Never Man’s Land, Whiston returns to James Barrie’s tale of the boy who didn’t want to grow up – a tale that’s fascinated Whiston since his teens – and looks not only at that theme but also at the choice facing a modern version of Peter: whether to be a man or a woman.
“When I was 17, I wrote a letter to myself at 30,” recalls the transgendered Whiston, “asking myself whether I was a lesbian. That’s the first time I wondered out loud about my queerness, and I even asked my older self whether she’d done that Peter Pan play yet.”
Never Man’s Land traces parallel figures, the contemporary Peter and Barrie’s well-known character, adding a Wendy attracted to Peter’s masculine side and also Mrs. Darling, who follows the well-trodden path of the good wife and mother.
“Barrie wrote and rewrote the Peter Pan story, basing it on autobiographical elements; for all its adventure elements, I see it also as a melancholic rumination on grief, loss and a desire not to become a grown-up,” says Whiston, a founder of the Boy Choir of Lesbos and author of a musical adaptation of Lord Of The Flies. He workshopped an earlier piece about the Barrie character, Peter Panic, at Nightwood.
“But in addition, the story involves lots of gender questions. Barrie’s novel, written after the play, was originally called Peter And Wendy. Think about the fact that onstage Peter is usually played by a woman, which raised all sorts of lesbian questions for me when I was a queer woman. There was always a sexual undertone to the story.
“I started wanting to grow up, but wasn’t sure how to do that. There was a deep-seated grief in trying to achieve adulthood and not being able to. I had gloried in the role of the boyish dyke, but I wasn’t 12 any more and started feeling confined by it.”
Whiston decided to move forward, but at first wasn’t sure whether that would be as a man or woman.
“In the past 18 months, post-transitioning, I’ve come to decisions about myself, and as a result the piece has opened up to look closely at how to grow up and what might happen if a person doesn’t.”
A multimedia show – Leslie Peters and Marcus Rak have created a video Neverland that lends a dreamlike atmosphere to the onstage action – Never Man’s Land explores not only Barrie’s themes but also issues that would never have been spoken about in Edwardian times.
“I see the piece as being not just about transgendered issues but also about how gender stereotypes affect everyone,” notes Whiston. “We’re all gendered and sometimes over-gendered.”